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Director of Downey space center has growth plans

DOWNEY — “We have lots of items from the past, but we are gearing toward the future, the science education of the younger generation,” says Benjamin Dickow, the new president and executive director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, 12400 Columbia Way, here.

Noting that the formal name of his 18,500-square-foot facility is the Columbia Space and Learning Center, Dickow said he plans an outreach to young people in the area with science, technology, engineering and math educational programs.

“If they don’t want to come here, I will go to them,” he said, referring to efforts to make the Downey center more widely known.

Dickow is qualified for the job with some 20 years of experience in informal science education.

He has served in the education and exhibits departments at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where he managed the Science Center’s educational program development and oversaw the creation of the Big Lab, a 55,000-square-foot open-ended learning space.

Dickow also has consulted on numerous projects around the country, including developing science and children’s museum experiences and leading master planning initiatives for large institutions, such as Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena.

In addition, he has worked with institutions such as UCLA on projects connected to the new next generation science standards.

“My plan is to make this place the hub of science experience for all of Southern California,” he said.

Some programs are already underway. There are sessions in the robotics lab, a Young Astronauts Club and a series of free classes for teachers on how to instruct their students.

Field trips for the teachers’ classes also are offered.

The Young Astronauts Club, for children 3 to 6, meets quarterly for a hands-on experience and to provide the children with basic science skills. Parents are invited to take part, Dickow said.

Future plans call for a Space Camp similar to the one he attended as a boy growing up in Chicago.

A native of Chicago, Dickow holds bachelor’s degrees in literature and physics from the University of Chicago and said he has a passion for science communication.

“I have always loved science, but communications is my main skill,” said Dickow, who came to the Los Angeles area in 2009 seeking “new challenges.”

He and his wife, Laurel, an animal scientist, live in Los Angeles, where he had his own consulting firm from 2010 until he came to Downey last year.

Dickow also has served as an on-air correspondent for the PBS television program “Wired Science.”

He founded the community-based Westside Science Club in Venice, which works to bring interactive science experiences to underserved youth.

The center has attracted regional notice. Last year an astronomy group from Hollywood held a program there and several weeks ago mayors from 50 area cities, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, met there.

Dickow said he would like to “rejuvenate” the Columbia Foundation, which includes members of the Rockwell Aerospace Legacy Club, made up of former workers on the NASA site.

He said the group has primarily been advisory but he would like to see them more active in promotion and fundraising.

Funds are especially needed to house the 122-foot long and 78-foot high wooden mockup of a space shuttle used for testing.

Named Inspire in a city contest, the mockup is housed at the public works yard pending construction of a permanent building to house it, probably next to the Space Center.

Opened in early 2009, the center has a number of technology and visual teaching exhibits.

That includes the only Challenger Learning Center in the Los Angeles area, which has two rooms simulating a flight to Mars with computers, robotics and hands-on exhibits. It is offered for large groups.

Dickow said the latest exhibits are a one-third scale model of the Orion Space capsule recently tested by the Lockheed Corporation; and 14 cement blocks taken from the former movie studio property to the north where NASA employees designed and manufactured parts for different spacecrafts.

The oldest is from 1971 and signed by astronaut Allan Shepherd, the first U.S. man in space. The latest block, from 1980, is signed by Dick Covey and Pinky Nelson of the Discovery shuttle, Dickow said.

“We will always have things to look at, but education is our goal,” he added.

The Space Center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $5.

Membership in the Space Center is $50 a year and allows a number of benefits including free admission to museums nationwide.